Readers who sip 32-ounce sodas while driving their SUVs from their McMansions to a book superstore should feel right at home when they reach the new fiction display table this fall. Many of the season's biggest novels are just that: big.
The pre—Labor Day publication of Life Mask (Harcourt), Emma Donoghue's follow-up to her breakout historical novel, Slammerkin, kicked off the season, weighing in at 644 pages. This week brings the release of Susanna Clarke's much-hyped first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury USA), tipping the bookshelf at 800 pages. Stephen King will follow on September 21 with The Dark Tower (Scribner), the 864-page novel he claims will be his last. But those books are bantamweights compared with two October titles, Shantaram (St. Martin's), a debut novel set in Australia and India by Gregory David Roberts, and The System of the World (Morrow), the third volume in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Both books, coincidentally, run 944 pages.
Other doorstop novels include Tom Wolfe's 608-page I Am Charlotte Simmons (FSG, Nov.), Madison Smartt Bell's 768-page The Stone That the Builder Refused (Pantheon, Nov.) and Elliot Perlman's 672-page literary novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Riverhead, Dec.).
Whether it's a debut novel or a veteran writer's swan song, the style for fall is unmistakable. Out: the little gem. In: the sprawling epic. What's not so clear is how readers will take to the trend.
Timing Is Crucial
Booksellers say long novels can be tough to sell, requiring a level of commitment that customers are reluctant to make. Even the editors and publicists behind these tomes admit that the books present challenges. The problem is reading time. "They're harder for me to sell because I don't read many of them myself," said Donna Urey, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H. "With everything else I have going on, I know it would take me a month to read a 900-page novel. I don't sell things as enthusiastically if I haven't read them myself." When she does push a long novel, she picks her targets carefully: "If they're the kind of busy person who can only read 10 pages a night, it will take them forever."
In response to the idea that the success of Bill Clinton's My Life may foreshadow a hunger for longer books, at least one bookseller maintained that readers judge fiction differently than nonfiction. "I don't think people are as intimated by Alexander Hamilton [by Ron Chernow, 600 pages] and John Adams [by David McCullough,736 pages], because there's a sense that history buffs like long books," said Ben Vore, who heads the fiction department at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, Tenn. A length that feels comprehensive in nonfiction can seem undisciplined in fiction, he explained, adding that this year's crop of long novels are probably "a sign that writers are a little more self-indulgent and maybe we need tougher editors."
Long books carry a burden of proof, said Robert Gray, a bookseller at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. "I can be suspicious as a reader if a novel is 900 pages. What does it have in it that requires that kind of distance? Am I being manipulated into thinking it's good because it's big?" Judging from booksellers' comments, that skepticism is most pronounced when it comes to new writers. For many, reading an author for the first time is like going on a blind date—it's more comfortable to meet for coffee than to commit to a five-course meal.
But Jonathan Strange's length doesn't seem to have done anything to mute the buzz over the debut novel, which has gotten plenty of reviews and off-the-book-page coverage, including a feature story in the New York Times Magazine. Bloomsbury publicist Yelena Gitlin said she only got one length-related turndown, from a radio show producer who said it would take too long to read the book. The success of Bloomsbury's promotional strategy may well be in its timing—the house began sending out bound galleys last December, hoping reviewers and journalists would take them home to read over the holidays. "We knew that because it was such a big book, we had to give people as much time as possible to read it," Gitlin said.
It remains a question whether Clarke's early edge may put other massive novels by emerging authors behind the curve. Will reviewers and booksellers still have an appetite for them by October 18, when Shantaram lands, or December 22, when Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity arrives? Both novels were quite well received in their authors' native Australia, but that alone is not enough to ensure success here.
Editors are quick to point out that, like a great meal, a well-written long novel affords a singular kind of pleasure. One of the best recent examples of a hefty novel that racked up heavyweight sales is Harcourt's 2002 literary blockbuster The Crimson Petal and the White (848 pages) by Michel Faber. That may help explain why Harcourt executive editor Ann Patty seems to lack any qualms about Life Mask's length. "There's always going to be skepticism," Patty said. "But for the many readers who find reading a pleasure, a long novel is like a two-week vacation instead of a one-week. Me, I love a two-week vacation."